Saturday, March 7, 2020

Review of "West Side Story"

If you cannot wait for Steven Spielberg’s remake of the film version of West Side Story this fall, you can head to the Broadway Theater for the revisionist, highly unsatisfying stage show directed by Ivo Van Hove.  For what seems like a majority of the 100-minute, intermission-less production, audience members are viewing what is happening via real-time projections streaming onto the back of the stage.  By being forced to watch the two-dimensional action, the intimacy and dramatic engagement between the characters and audience is largely missing.  The two primary settings, where the projections are incorporated, are Doc’s store and the dress shop where Maria and Anita work.  They are tucked in the very back of the stage making them virtually unviewable unless via the projection.  Designed by Jan Versweyveld, these are superb recreations of an “In the Heights” bodega and a cramped, manufacturing sweat shop. The attention to detail is truly exceptional. 

For individuals not familiar with the plot of West Side Story, it is a contemporary take on Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet written by librettist Arthur Laurents.  Unlike most revivals of the musical that hark back to the late 1950’s, this rendering of the show takes place in the present.  The multi-racial cast, most adorned with extensive tattoos, is divided into two street gangs—the Sharks (Puerto Rican) and Jets (more White)--that battle for control of their changing neighborhood.  Complicating the rivalry is the star-crossed love affair of Tony, the former leader of the Jets, and Maria, the sister of the Sharks’ leader, Bernardo.   In the end, their ill-fated romance leads to anguish and grief.

The score for West Side Story, by Leonard Bernstein and Stephen Sondheim, is one of the most iconic in Broadway musical history.  To name just a few of the well-known numbers - "Something's Coming", "Maria", "Tonight", "America", and "Somewhere."  The song “I Feel Pretty” and the “Somewhere” ballet sequence have been excised from the production, supposedly to save time since there is no intermission.  The score is full of energy, with songs full of hope, and desires.  The lone comedic number, “Gee, Officer Krupke,” is now effectively delivered with a note of cynicism and despair.

With many of the songs and production numbers, there is a ceaseless barrage of projections which made it hard to focus on the conflicts and encounters on stage.  For example, with the raucous “Dance at the Gym” sequence the streaming video was extremely distracting and diverted from enjoying Anne Teresa de Keersmaeker’s rambunctious, sexually charged choreography.  During the aftermath of “The Rumble,” both gangs are spread across the naked stage, slowly recovering from their wounds and realizing the deadly ramifications of what just transpired.  It is a solemn moment when, suddenly, the screen lights up with an aerial view of the setting, robbing the moment of its power and intensity.

Director Ivo Van Hove has come up with some interesting concepts for this production.  The latter half of the musical is set during a constant rain, which amplifies the bleakness and despair of all involved.  Cell phone videos are playfully employed, primarily, during the “Gee, Officer Krupke” number.

The acting troupe, while effortlessly portraying their respective roles, is hampered by the two-dimensionality of their characters playing just overhead.  It was difficult becoming enmeshed with the actors and actresses and feeling 100% connected to them. 

Isaac Powell’s Tony, intoxicated with his love for Maria, could be seen as overplaying the part, but his boyishness and euphoria come across as real and heartfelt.  The same could be said for Shereen Pimentel’s Maria who, also shot with cupid’s arrow, is exhilarated and rapturous in her newfound, yet forbidden, love.  Besides a withering sneer and absolute repudiation for members of the Jets, Amar Ramasar, does not show much range or nuance as Bernardo.  Dharon E. Jones as Riff and Yesenia Ayala as Anita provide assured, compelling performances.

West Side Story, an ineffectually conceived revival, at the Broadway Theatre.

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